Hubert Burda Media

The Golden Age of Travel

The period between 1880 and 1936 was remarkable for travel on luxury liners and trains. Today, memories of those days are are attracting a growing number of investors. By Ian Jarrett

The Golden Age of Travel

Vintage luggage is a portrait of where someone's been and where they're going, culminating in personal stories and journeys — so says Tim Bent, the founder of Bentley's antique luggage emporium in London. In the 21st century though, they are also spinning a yarn of their own, albeit one more financial in nature, attracting strong interest in the salerooms found at Christie's.
The same goes for vintage travel posters with dealers worldwide experiencing strong demand from collectors and home decorators. It's no different with postage stamps. While travelling has always been about spending, of late it seems it might be reaping monetary returns as well.
Bags of Appeal
Luggage from the 19th to mid-20th century — a period known as the Golden Age of travel — is increasingly sought after by collectors who appreciate the quality and historic value of these items.
“It isn't just about luggage, it's about the long-lost romance of travelling,” says Henry Gregory, who runs an antique shop specialising in vintage luggage along London's Portobello Road.
During a period when the European aristocracy travelled in great style — often on ocean liners such as the RMS Queen Mary or her great French rival SS Normandie — a lady's baggage would include suitcases, holdalls, hat boxes, mobile wardrobes, cruiser bags, shoe cases, briefcases and toilet sets. It was not uncommon for people to also include sets of cocktail glasses and card and gaming tables.
Gregory says trunks made by Louis Vuitton are most popular with his customers, many of whom buy them to use as “highly prized coffee tables”. The French Maison, trunk-maker to Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, is credited with revolutionising the industry with flat-top trunks fitted with storage compartments and by using treated canvas rather than leather, making bags waterproof.
Christie's in London sold several of the brand's trunks at its The Ski Sale: Travel In Style auction in January this year. The sale saw the highest price ever paid for a Louis Vuitton trunk sold at the auction house, with a late 19th-century high trunk in striped canvas achieving £37,250 against an estimate of £4,000-£6,000.
Clare Borthwick, a specialist at Christie's, says clients buy trunks as coffee tables and as sophisticated mini-wardrobes for their children, as well as for storage and for use as luggage. “I believe the main appeal is their versatility. Louis Vuitton is the most iconic vintage luggage brand, but we offer examples by Goyard, Hermès and Moynet as well.
“In terms of collecting, the earliest and rarest examples are the most sought after, with quirky hotel and ferry labels, as well as monogrammed initials always adding to the romantic nature of the items and their provenance.”
Borthwick says Christie's vintage luggage sales are a popular category “with buyers showing a great appreciation for the craftsmanship and skill that went towards creating these practical and beautiful items of luggage”. “Is there a more stylish way for a wardrobe to travel?”
Much of this old luggage was thrown out as worthless junk in the 1960s and 1970s, but became collectible in the 1980s when colonial fashion came back in vogue. Bent says his business grew out of his love for bespoke vintage menswear, which was inspired by his father's and grandfather's “flamboyant bespoke wardrobes”.
Evolving into gentlemen's luggage and accessories was a natural progression which gained impetus, Bent says, thanks to TV series such as Brideshead Revisited and Sydney Pollack's stylish movie Out of Africa.
Poster Power
Few works of art have been treated so shabbily as the humble travel poster. Stuck up on walls, left out in the rain, ignored, torn down and replaced, travel posters have been having it rough since the masters of the poster art pioneered mass advertising in the late 1890s.
They were pinned to the dusty walls of railway stations, glued to hoardings on busy Parisian streets and taped to travel shop windows where they offered dreams of an escape from the humdrum of city life and the promise of distant exotic destinations.
Ironically, vintage posters that survived neglect and indifference are fetching hefty prices in salerooms across the world today. In January this year, Christie's The Ski Sale: Travel in Style auction saw furious bidding, in particular for the section of Swiss travel posters, led by Plinio Colombi's 1929 poster for St Moritz which sold for £25,000.
Despite the worldwide Great Depression and its aftermath, many of history's most spectacular ships were launched in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Posters of this era are highly sought after, especially those executed by AM Cassandre. His posters included one to commemorate the 60th voyage of the transatlantic liner SS Normandie, the pride of the French merchant fleet when she made her maiden voyage to the US in 1935.
Jim Lapides, owner of the International Poster Gallery in Boston, says travel and transportation posters “powerfully remind us of a romantic era now long past and reignite the joys of discovery and enchantment we have all experienced in venturing to faraway lands”.
He believes the market for travel posters is broader than ever: “We are seeing more interest from all parts of the world, not just the traditional market of the US. Europe has particularly exploded over the last five years.”
According to Lapides, prices paid for posters never spiked like many other collectibles and art in the boom years, but rather “steadily increased in value as supply has dwindled and demand has grown”.
A good example of rising demand came at the Rare & Important Travel Posters sale held by New York's Swann Galleries in November 2012. Nicholas Lowry, president and vintage posters specialist, says more records were set at this auction than any other sale of travel posters held by company.
Art dealers point out that there are several factors determining a poster's value — its rarity and condition, the artist's popularity, subject matter and perceived merit of the artwork. Mickey Ross, who owns Ross Art Group on Madison Avenue in New York, says many people buy posters for their decorative appeal. “They are a great way to decorate your walls with a collectible item that you can enjoy looking at.”
Bruce Skilbeck, owner of Poster Classics in Saint-Jorioz in the French Alps, specialises in French and Italian posters, which are among the most collectable. He says the attraction of these posters is their strong sense of place, dramatic depth of colour and outstanding artwork.
He is especially keen on the posters of Frenchman Roger Broders, who was best known for promoting the fashionable beaches of the Côte d'Azur and ski resorts in the French Alps.
Stamps Have Got it Licked
Postage stamps may be the stuff of schoolboy dreams but they are also a popular investment. Business moguls Bill Gross, co-founder of Pacific Investment Management (PIMCO), and Warren Buffet are both investors in the sector.
As testament to this, London dealer Stanley Gibbons has opened offices in Singapore and Hong Kong in response to a surge of interest in stamps from collectors and investors across Asia. Group Investment Director Keith Heddle says: “In China, there is a focus on buying back heritage pieces after stamp collecting was banned under Mao until 1976 — this is borne by the fact that Asian clients tend to have 25 percent of their investment in Chinese stamps whereas Western investors have the majority of their investment in British stamps.”
Heddle says Chinese stamp shows are “absolutely buzzing” and there are estimated to be more than 20 million serious Chinese collectors. Markets are also booming in places like India, where there is a strong philatelic heritage.
Yet, British stamps remain the most popular for investment due to the long recorded price histories. “However, for those investors with a higher risk profile seeking more dramatic returns, Chinese rarities are increasingly in demand. This is not a market for stock pickers or dynamic day-to-day trading; it is for those looking for steady growth, healthy returns and stability for part of their portfolio.”
Stanley Gibbons says stamp values are backed by solid historical data, with stamp prices charted annually back to the 1880s so “increases are transparent”.
The GB30 Rarities Index, which tracks the prices of 30 of the rarest stamps of Britain, has risen by more than 11 percent each year for the past 10 years. However, the market is fairly illiquid because stamps are traded very infrequently since they are often unique.
In terms of illustrating the strength of the market for investment grade stamps, Stanley Gibbons says the GB250 Rarities Index is a better guide as the stamps tracked on it “are of the right quality and rarity for investment but traded a little more frequently, thus giving a better snapshot of the market”.
Iconic British stamps such as the Penny Black and Two Penny Blue are much sought after. An Edward VII 6d stamp, overprinted with “IR Official” and issued in 1904, was sold by Stanley Gibbons to a Singaporean investor in 2010 for £375,000; and a Plate 77 Penny Red was sold for £550,000 last year via its Hong Kong office.